Third Prize Winner of the 2017-18 Writing Contest
UNREAL CITY, OR: A PORTRAIT OF LONDON AS I SEE IT BY ABI HUNTER
This story starts four and a half years ago, when I am almost seventeen and in love but don’t know it yet.
This story starts three years ago, when I realize I am in love.
This story starts five years ago, when I am barely sixteen and I receive a thin letter in the mail with all that rigmarole about how we are pleased to inform you and this time, like always, there is no pleasure in it because the year is 2013 and I don’t know what my financial aid package looks like and we all have to worry about money. Well, most of us do.
This story really and truly starts when a plane takes off from Boston Logan and flies past Iceland and Ireland and the United Kingdom and overshoots the city where I will spend the next nine months and lands in Paris, France. I am sixteen, clumsy, and shy. I have few friends, but I will make more. An hour after we land, I will be finished with immigration and will have a fresh stamp in my first ever passport. Then all sixty-five of the students in my program will get on a bus for five hours. We’ll get off in Rennes, a city I can barely picture in my head because I have never been but have looked at dozens and dozens of photos.
When we do get off, I feel like I’m in a painting. There’s street art everywhere. The buildings are beautiful. This country is like nothing I have ever seen before. On the front door of the building that will be our school, there is a paper printout sign that says, “Checkpoint Charlie: You are leaving the American sector.” The next day the sign disappears, and I realize that it wasn’t meant to say that every time we enter the school we leave the American sector. The sign means that we left it the moment we set foot in this country, and that we will not go back until the following May.
I live in Rennes for nine months. I leave in December because I find out I have been living in the country illegally, but I come back. The French government agreed to let me live there for another six months.
Sometime, during all this time, I start to savor every minute that I spend with my best friend. I start to take every second and cherish it. My heart begins to flutter when she texts me. She begins to always be my first choice, and I want to be hers. I want to read everything she reads and like the things she likes. I think about mariage pour tous but not what it might mean for me, one day.
I am really stupid, actually, I find out.
In March she buys me The Picture of Dorian Gray in Paris, at Shakespeare and Company. I read it and I love the unspoken, censored romance between Basil and Dorian. I read her the preface to the book as we walk along the Champs-Élysées.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim, I read.
She doesn’t get it, and neither do I. We’re seventeen and sixteen, respectively. Of course we don’t get it.
In May she kisses the boy she loves on the beach in Provence and I don’t understand how I can be happy for her, how I can have tried so hard to set them up, at the same time as my heart is breaking.
As established, I am really and truly stupid.
My girlfriend and I are in the queue at Charles de Gaulle airport and our flight has been delayed. I’m reading a book I bought at Gay’s the Word two months ago. She’s reading a book she bought at Gay’s the Word two days ago. Both of us had been to Paris before this weekend, but neither of us had been in the City of Love with someone we loved.
Well, I guess that’s not true, for me. It is the first time I’ve been in the City of Love with someone who loves me back, though. We spent the weekend holding hands and walking along the Seine. We did something I’ve always wanted to do and bought books from the bouquinistes along the banks of the river. I shoved a gently used copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog into her backpack.
We are holding hands as we line up to board. I look up and I say to her, this is the same gate where I boarded the first time I went to London.
Really? She asks.
I think so, I say. I look it up to make sure but my email boarding pass from four years ago doesn’t know.
I am sixteen going on seventeen. Clumsy and shy. I’m boarding the EasyJet flight from Paris to London. I’m reading a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray that my best friend bought me a week ago. I’m in the middle, and I love it just as much as I loved the preface.
The plane lands in Luton. I go to London for the first time in my life and I check myself into the (Norwegian) YWCA on Holland Park. I pay two hundred pounds in cash for eight nights in London, meals included, which I can barely afford. But London is the city of my dreams, and I don’t care if it means I’ll have to eat every meal at home for three months or deal with holes in my jeans, or get a job flipping burgers when I get home, because I have to go to London.
I do go to London.
I go to London and I take selfies in front of Big Ben. I walk along the Thames, I walk along the Serpentine in Hyde Park. When my travel companions tell me they want to sleep in I ditch them and walk west. I have no data plan. I have no maps. I don’t know where I’m going. But I know that this is London, that it’s the city I’ve dreamed about for years and years and that I’m finally here and I want to spend these eight days soaking it up. I want to eat London whole. I take the tube wherever I can. I know that I should try to look like a disinterested commuter but I can’t help the dopey look on my face. London. The tube.
I ride the Central Line more times than I can count from central London to the hostel in Holland Park. Eight days isn’t enough, but it’s all I’ve got.
“Excuse me. Excuuuse me! Excuse me! Sorry, sorry, please move! Sorry! Excuse me!”
I’m fenced in on the Central Line, with this year’s Eurovision entries playing on repeat on my headphones. I’ve got a medium extra-shot Americano from Prêt in my hand and I really need it. In an hour I have my Mandarin final, and for some unfathomable reason my university is holding exams at an east London conference center, several miles away from campus, many miles away from where I live. To get there, I walk ten minutes, take the Central Line two stops to Bank. Change at Bank to the DLR. Change at Westferry to a different DLR line.
I spend the whole DLR ride on my phone. I look up and see the Gherkin fading into the distance, and I grin because for years the Gherkin was so emblematic of London for me. Before I moved to Chicago, before I first saw London only days before my seventeenth birthday, the Gherkin was the building I used to dream about. It’s a weird building. I don’t know why I picked it to represent London in my mind above something like, say, Tower Bridge, or Big Ben. But I did, and there’s that building, fading on the horizon as I go about the most mundane of everyday tasks, as I go about that one thing that so many Londoners do every day: a commute. The Slovenian Eurovision entry is pumping through my tinny earbuds. It ends, and I press repeat.
Like most bookstores, Gay’s the Word has a glass display window. Unlike most bookstores, people like to throw bricks through it. Three days after this year’s round of vandalism I go to this store that has given me so much and I browse for an hour when I should be writing a sociolinguistics essay. I buy a copy of London Triptych, because it seems appropriate.
This one is good, says the owner.
I’ve heard, I say. I heard about the vandalism, I’m really sorry about that.
It used to happen all the time in the eighties, he says.
(I remember that I am in the presence of someone who has lived through so much.)
Still, I say.
It happens, he says. We put up new windows.
(The current one is immaculate. I think that they must have spares. In fact, I think that I read somewhere that they have spares because of how often this kind of thing happens.)
I just wanted to come by and say I was sorry it happened, I say. It’s disgusting, but you know that. I wanted to buy something, you know, to support you.
Oh, thanks for that, he says.
Well yeah, of course, I say. Every time I come here I have to decide what not to buy, really. I have a paper due but I had to come by.
Oh, really? What’s your paper on? he asks.
Language and gender, I say, which is true.
He asks about it, and I tell him about the arguments I make in my sociolinguistics paper. I hope that this bookstore is here for a hundred years.
For some people, London has always been their everyday. My flatmate (we would say suitemate in America) says that he feels he has grown up spoiled.
You have no idea.
On a rainy Monday afternoon I decide to get lost. I have just turned in my semantics final and I don’t want to start syntax yet. I have my purse and my umbrella and my camera and I start wandering and it is with a pang of melancholy and pride that I realise, an hour and a half later, that I can’t get lost in central London. I have turned up somewhere I know, and I know how to get home from here without even looking at a map.
It stops raining and it starts drizzling. It stops drizzling. I fold up my umbrella. Soon I’m at Hyde Park, a different Hyde Park, the one I know here, and I remember how it looked in winter, decked out in lights and a pop-up carnival. It looks completely different now. I am standing in the middle of an empty field, in the middle of the afternoon. Four months ago, there were roller coasters and carousels and mulled-wine stands at this very spot. I turn around and walk backwards. I look up at the trees and take a deep breath. It’s late April and spring is here despite the weather: forty-five and windy. I look up at the sky and smile. It’s April in London. How lucky am I?
I’m a linguistics student, fluent in French, who chose to study in a country where the official language is her native tongue. Of all people, I see the irony. If I’d wanted, I could have gone back to France. I could have slipped back into that language that’s not my own but that definitely lives somewhere in my chest. I would have dressed like this stupid American in t-shirts and jeans and Doc Martens and, as I do when I go back, constantly impressed people by opening my mouth and spilling out elegant French that occasionally, only occasionally, hits a false note. (Sometimes the guttural R catches in my throat. Sometimes it comes out more like a chet, the Hebrew sound I practiced as a kid so I could say challah and Chanukah and Chava.)
Here I am, though. An English-speaker in England, pronouncing every ‘r’ (a different ‘r’) that comes my way. I feel foreign but not-foreign. Different to how I felt in France.
I’m older, though. Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I wonder how I’ve changed since I stepped off that Icelandair flight in Heathrow. When I came back to the United States after nine months in France all I wanted was to come back. Also, people would never shut up about how much I had changed, how much better I was since I’d come back.
She’s so much more outspoken.
Like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.
She was so quiet and reserved before.
These aren’t bad things. Still, I spent years trying to figure out who I would have been had I never gone.
I figured out that I wasn’t very different. Some things might have taken longer, that’s true. Deep down, though, I’d still be the same person. I hope, at least. I hope that this me that I’ve come to know and definitely like (most of the time) is not so variable as that, but perhaps she is. And perhaps the me that would not have gone to London and instead gone to Paris or spent third-year in Chicago is different from the me in a London April, ducking into a Swedish bakery on impulse and ordering two cinnamon buns and a coffee.
London is mine. It’s not just mine, of course. But I own my own bit of London. My London is the tiny garden at the corner of my street. My London is the way I cut through that garden and another one listening to eighties music on my way to class. It’s the hostel, miles from here, where I spent my first ever week in London four years ago. It’s the night I spent at a disco when all my friends were too tired to go dancing, and I stood in the middle of the dance floor with a pint of cider, awkwardly swaying to a band called Hot Chip.
My London is watching a guy throw up on the street on my way back from King’s Cross Station at half past midnight. My London is walks along Regent’s Canal and tube delays and bad vegan fast food and half-understanding signs in Mandarin and good vegan fast food and completely understanding signs in French but not thinking the joke is funny.
London belongs to me.
The girl I loved in France never loved me back. That May we hugged goodbye in JFK airport and I went to face the brigade of people who’d insist I was a completely different person. We’re still friends on Facebook. We message each other sometimes. A year later was when I really realized I was in love with her, and a year after that I met my first girlfriend.
My London is finding my girlfriend in St Pancras Station, pulling her into my arms, and moving apart but staying attached at our hands. It’s standing at a crosswalk in Trafalgar Square with her soft hand in mine and nudging her. I point at the crosswalk symbol, which instead of the little green man is the woman-woman romance symbol. She smiles, and I try to take a picture of her, under the double Venus symbol, grinning. The light changes, and I miss the shot.
I meet a friend from King’s College at the Donmar Warehouse, where we’ve wrangled five-pound tickets to The York Realist. We’re in the upper circle, the nosebleeds of the nosebleeds, and we’re not sitting together. We bought these tickets this morning, so we’re lucky to be here at all. We can look across the mural of the Yorkshire landscape and wave at each other. When the play starts, I lean as far as I can over the barrier so that I can watch the action from above. I recognize one of the actors from Downton Abbey, and another from Broadchurch.
This play shifts so subtly in time it’s hard to tell when we’ve gone backward, except that dead characters walk across the stage again and we realize that we’re years in the past now, when the main characters first meet.
The action takes place in a single room of a single house, but somehow evokes the whole of Yorkshire. I’ve never been to Yorkshire. I’m being drawn into the lives of these characters as though by a thread, tugging me into their conflicts, hopes, desires, dreams. Tugging me into the stormy landscape of the northern English countryside in the 1960s. I’m leaning over, trying to get closer, but if I lean more I’ll topple onto the stage.
Apparently, London is a place where you can decide to attend a play the day of.
Another friend and I are getting our IDs checked at the Royal Geographical Society in West London, where they’re premiering a new AMC show. This friend won a writing contest on Facebook. The prize was to attend the premiere with a plus-one. I’m the plus-one. One of the attendants hands us badges.
The walls are decorated with portraits of real Geographical Society members, intermixed with posters of the show characters.
Maybe we should mingle, says my friend. Look!
She points at an actor I vaguely recognize, and a couple others I don’t.
Everyone files into a tent set up on the lawn for the show. They’ve lined the walls with blue-tinged photos of the characters looking miserably cold. Midway through, despite being riveted, I realize that I need to go to the bathroom, and half-run half-walk back into the building, up the stairs, where there’s a queue. When I get back, I ask my friend to tell me everything that happened.
When the premiere is over, we’ve taken our official photos, and had a chat and a photo with as many members of the cast as we can, it’s almost midnight. Because it’s a Thursday there is no night tube. The last Piccadilly Line train is in less than half an hour. Giggling and a little tipsy, my friend, the other contest winner, her plus-one, and I all leave the Royal Geographical Society. They hand us bags on the way out with themed jigsaw puzzles inside. We walk fifteen minutes to the tube and get the second-to-last train.
I get off the train at Russell Square, walk back to my flat, and fall asleep. The next morning, when I wake up, the whole thing seems surreal, but there’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle under my bed.
Apparently, London is the kind of place where your friends invite you to television premieres like it’s nothing, and you have the time of your life.
This story begins seven months ago, when, having been to London before only briefly, I laid down my suitcases and went first thing to the grocery store to buy milk and toilet paper. This story begins when I set up my life here, burn something on the stove for the first time, spend the whole day in my pyjamas, drink a cup of tea, ruin a pot of coffee, read Stephen King’s It in the park.
I don’t know where this story begins, this one that I am still living, this one story among others grafted into the prismatic film strip of a young life with no truly discrete stories to tell.